In the numbing cold of January 1907, Little Nellie's mother perished of TB and left behind her four small children and a grieving husband who was at a loss as to how to care for his brood. Nellie's father, William was a soldier in the army, and before he accepted that he would have to part with his children, he struggled on for a few months and enlisted the occasional help of a woman who lived nearby. There was also a young girl who did babysitting while William was on duty.

Once when the young girl was tending to the children, Nellie fell to the floor and her back was hideously injured: the blow of hitting the ground curved her spine, and the bashed back bone stabbed a mass of most sensitive nerves. The young girl's level of culpability is in question, did Nellie fall from her arms? Did the girl drop her in a fit of exasperation? But after the accident, the girl kept the fall to herself and hence no one knew that Nellie needed urgent medical attention, and no one knew of Nellie's painfully crooked back. This girl came in for stinging criticism by an early biographer of Nellie's, Margaret Gibbons who flatly called this young girl, "a coward", of whom she wrote, "she was gravely guilty in having kept silent about it...she feared to face a little unpleasantness." As you are about to see, Nellie endured the unpleasantness and pain.

Four months after her mother's death, Nellie aged 3 years and 9 months was placed into the care of The Good Shepherd Sisters in Sunday's Well, a northern neighborhood over Cork City. Nellie came with her sister, Mary who was a few years older.  In the early days of Nellie's arrival, the sister observed that she walked and toddled with a most unsteady gait with her arms outstretched before her. They presumed it was the regulation boots that were too tough for her tender toddler toes. The sisters bought Nellie a pair of handsome slipper shoes and Sister Immaculata knitted her a pair of rose-pink socks. They dressed up Nellie all in white and put on the soft shoes and pink socks, and led her through the convent so she could be admired.

Nellie joined Sister Immaculata's class for lessons, but she found sitting upright for long periods a torture, and she wailed and stamped her foot through the lessons. One day Nellie was particularly obstreperous. To punish Nellie, Sister Immaculata started to remove Nellie's new soft shoes and socks, but to her amazement Nellie helped her take off the shoes and put on the old boots even though it symbolized an unjust sanction. Nellie couldn't explain the pain she was in, but because her crying and stamping had caused St Immaculata a certain annoyance, Nellie came up to her (tiny Nellie was as tall as her knee) and grabbed at the folds of her nun's habit, Nellie said contritely, "Modder, I sorry." This melted Immaculata's heart and she restored the soft socks and shoes to Nellie's feet.

But Sister Immaculata remained perplexed as to why Nellie found sitting still an agony and had to summon all her strength to stifle her sobs during class. The girl who slept next to Nellie was called Mary Long, or "Longie" as Nellie dubbed her, and she reported to Sister Immaculata that she often heard Nellie crying out in pain during the night. Sister Immaculata sought out Miss Hall, the nurse, and the notion that Nellie had back trouble dawned on them. Nellie was subject to a close examination and they discovered she had a curved spine, and so Nellie was moved to the infirmary and was no longer brought to the classroom for lessons. She was given her breakfast in bed every morning, and at the end of the year when she received Holy Communion for the first time she was carried to the altar and held while the priest placed the Eucharist on her tongue.

The infirmary where Nellie lived

Nellie knew the dire pain of a back injury, and for this reason I suggest she is an intercessor for people who suffer with back pain and for people whose lives are much curtailed because of spinal injury. There is the case of little Mary Brockman of Chicago, Illinois was born with a deformed spine and could not sit up or walk. Little Mary could not talk either. When she was three years old, Mary's mother brought her to the nuns at Patrick's Convent on Park Avenue. The sisters blessed the tiny tot with a relic of Little Nellie and they began a novena for the child's total recovery. On the last day of the novena, the child sat up and walked across the floor and talked for the first time. When little Mary was brought back to the convent, the sisters could scarcely believe it was the same child, so dramatic was her healing from disability. Mary Brockman's miraculous healing after Little Nellie's intercession was invited took place a century ago in the 1920s. I posit that Little Nellie's help be sought for children with spinal deformities and children with a range of physical disabilities. Nellie's intercession has not been sought and found wanting, rather her intercession has not been sought nearly enough.

I invite you to pray the prayer for the canonization of Little Nellie.